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Punch-Drunk love story

A review of Punch, Welby Ings' small-town queer romance 15 years in the making.

Punch-Drunk love story

Apr 23, 2023 Film & TV

I’ve heard Welby Ings speak twice, and both times I’ve been deeply moved. A well-respected playwright and professor at Auckland University of Technology, Ings is incredibly eloquent. The second time I heard him speak, introducing his debut feature, Punch, at its premiere at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival, I was brought to tears. Here was a filmmaker clearly in love with cinema and desperate to pour his heart out through this precious art form — it was a profound, reflective moment, in which Ings elaborated on the struggles both he personally and the wider queer community in Aotearoa have endured over the decades. Now, after gestating for some 15 years, his film chronicling the first love of a teenage boxer in small-town New Zealand has finally, finally come to fruition.

Getting a film made in this country is a long, unbelievably difficult road, especially for those who don’t come from wealth and connections. It’s what makes writing about New Zealand films so perilous. We are a small country, and we put out only a few films a year. Our local filmmakers are drastically underfunded and undersupported, and writing meaningful criticism about a film made here can sometimes feel like you’re putting nails in a coffin, with fickle audiences and the draw of the latest superhero film lurking around the corner. I’m often reminded of Aaron Yap’s excellent essay on The Spinoff about writing about New Zealand films: “There’s this kid-gloves, support-the-industry mentality that seems to permeate media coverage of the local arts that can’t be helpful. Should we hold different standards for New Zealand filmmaking to something that was made in the US?”

Punch is a debut whose earnestness and depth of feeling radiate from the screen throughout. While it’s imperfect in many ways, there’s an ambition to the film that only comes from an artist finally being given his chance and seizing it with both hands. This means the film overreaches, its seams tearing from the force of ambition. There are elements throughout that just don’t work. But it is the work of a filmmaker whom I’d love to see more from, and whose film I genuinely hope people see.

The biggest selling card for Punch is the presence of British thespian Tim Roth, who takes a supporting role here as Stan, the sickly, alcoholic father of Jim (Jordan Oosterhof), a small-town boxing prodigy with boyish good looks and a gentle demeanour. When Jim meets takatāpui classmate Whetu (Conan Hayes), an attraction blossoms, igniting retrograde small-town New Zealand attitudes and placing Jim’s boxing future at risk.

While consciously centring its queer characters, the film also makes a withering survey of the attitudes and emotional stuntedness of traditional New Zealand masculinity. Roth, as the biggest-name cast member by a mile, takes a minor-key approach here. He regularly cedes the spotlight to his two young co-stars, whose tender relationship is the film’s beating heart. Roth’s character is sot-spoken, often characterised by an alcoholic’s distance, making him hard to place. It’s a role that could easily have slid into cheap, abusive cliché — a repressed New Zealand man unable to connect with his queer son. From the outset, Punch announces itself as something subtly different, opening on Stan walking through sand dunes to a much younger Jim, playing around with other boys wearing homemade wings. Stan leads Jim away from his friends, but not in an aggressive or cruel way. Instead, it is with a gentle hand — he’s taking him away from play because he has a dream to work on, not because of his sexuality. There are plenty of disputes and disagreements between the two characters, but not necessarily because of Jim’s sexuality.

Both Oosterhof and Hayes are newcomers, promising young New Zealand talent, and their chemistry is sweet and sparkling. Oosterhof has a blocky physicality — in early scenes we see Jim taking morning jogs that quickly become sprints as he leaps across sand dunes like a golden retriever. I was reminded of Mark Wahlberg’s strong, undersung work in David O Russell’s The Fighter — another boxer in another boxing movie who serves as a reliable, unflashy anchor to the bigger personalities revolving around him. Oosterhof at first seems to struggle to give layers to his character, to the point that I initially felt he may have been miscast. It isn’t until Hayes’ Whetu shows up that Oosterhof ’s Jim really comes alive. The film ultimately belongs to Hayes, who is a burning well of passion, rage and unapologetic sass. As soon as Hayes’ Whetu graces the screen, all eyes are on him, and it is his tenuous, immensely at-risk place in a conservative rural community that provides the film with its tension and slowly escalating dread amidst the tender romance that develops between the two.

It’s all directed with verve and sincerity by Ings, who is clearly drawing on real-life experiences and passionately carving out space for New Zealand’s queer stories. Ings knows how to create a striking sequence, and there are many indelible images throughout Punch — an energetic, saturated beachside jaunt shot through with the excesses of youth; an arid, vast mine where Stan labours day in and day out to fuel Jim’s future, straight out of a Springsteen song; a love scene by a sun-dappled estuary that gazes lovingly at segmented bodies finding each other for the first time, which manages to be erotic without leering. Indeed, the film is sexually frank in a way that few Aotearoa films genuinely manage. It’s incredibly refreshing. The colours of the film feel different from much of Aotearoa’s recent output, as does its energetic directorial choices, which lend even the film’s more predictable moments a sense of deep feeling.

It’s a shame, then, that Punch’s script struggles so mightily to match its promising directing. I’ve heard grumbles that the plot of Punch seems to linger in territory that has already been covered in other films from other parts of the world. That doesn’t bother me at all — there’s clear value to the authentic telling of a story like this from a small-town Aotearoa perspective. But it is, nevertheless, a script plagued with issues.

Perhaps because it is a film that has been gestating for so long, Punch at times seems stranded between two time periods — it is set in the modern day, but it often feels like its portrayal of New Zealand attitudes, particularly around its depiction of teen culture, is drawn from an era that doesn’t much reflect the present. The most glaring fl aw in the film throughout is its dialogue, which leaves little to the imagination and often feels forced and overwritten. Scenes that begin to take flight are too often brought back to earth by an overtly theatrical line, something that feels like it would never come from the mouth of the character speaking it. The film’s most expressive scenes are the ones where it gets out of its own way and lets the characters’ physicalities tell the story. Scenes in which Whetu is bullied by antagonistic fellow students feel like they’ve walked in from another, far broader, film, as does a jarring and alarmingly presented scene of sexual assault. Again, this feels like the script of a first-time filmmaker — a film eager to make its points and underline them triply, over and over again, creating a noisiness that threatens at times to overwhelm.

Very few filmmakers knock it out of the park on their debut. The Coens did it with Blood Simple, Soderbergh with sex, lies, and videotape, Ramsay with Ratcatcher, Truffaut with The 400 Blows. The list isn’t long. Punch is a messy debut with some inescapable flaws, undoubtedly. But it’s the work of a filmmaker who trades in deep feeling, something all too rare in a modern filmscape drained of genuine sincerity. It seems to me that often in New Zealand we produce films, but rarely do we nurture the filmmakers in creating an oeuvre. It’s my hope that Punch is an intriguing, promising first step in a longer career for a deserving artist.


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